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Making Community Health Information as Useful as Weather Data

June 2, 2010
O'Reilly Radar

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The chief technology office of Health and Human Services, Todd Park, is fond of using the National Ocean and Oceanographic Association (NOAA) as a metaphor for the innovation that may be unlocked through releasing public data. NOAA data underpins and nearly every commercial meteorological service in the United States. Park has been working closely with other government officials and the technology community to put community healthcare data into a parallel role as a catalyst for innovation. In other words, HHS is creating a framework for government to act as a platform through the Community Health Data Initiative.

"The idea to make our community data as useful to the world as weather data or other types of data is to other parts of American life," said Park yesterday at a media briefing. "The real magic is that HHS put data out there on March 11 and the world responded. Innovators responded -- from Google to Microsoft to startups -- and have built amazing apps that HHS could never have built itself. That's built amazing value for citizens."

It's clear that at HHS, as Tim O'Reilly observed in his post on NHIN Connect and open healthcare records, "there's some fresh thinking going on here, influenced by the best practices of open standards and rapid Internet development."

This morning, Park will join HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and White House CTO Aneesh Chopra at the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Science, where they will host the Community Health Data Forum.

For those unable to attend the event in person, the CHDI event will be streamed at and through this livestream. The agenda is available online. After the jump, you can get a sneak preview of some of the applications that will be going live today.

Apps, games and platforms for open health data

Yesterday's preview featured fascinating creations from the National Association of Counties (NACO), GE, Bing, Healthways and Google. Collectively, they hold promise for enabling citizens to make better health decisions and providers to make data-driven policy.

Google Fusion Tables and health data

Google's Fusion Tables are essentially a lightweight online database powered by Google's cloud that allow users to examine data, combine it and share. Instead of the "best place to live," users can search through community health data, mash it up with maps and see which regions are, for instance, the "best places to have chest pain."

Using Fusion Tables and CHDI data, Dr. Ronnie Zieger, Google's chief health strategist (and a practicing doctor) showed at the media briefing how to filter for region and a certain value, like heart attack mortality. He called his particular mashup Hospital Finder, though the datasets could be adapted for may other users. Users can restrict a search to just hospitals with a "lower than" value, zoom in to maps or customize search results with metrics aggregated under "Heart friendly" or "People friendly" labels.

Bing visualizes health data

Earlier this year, Bing quietly began adding public health data provided by patient ratings immediately below search results for hospitals. The box also includes nearby facilities, ranked by distance, and the ability for searchers to share with their social networks.

Bing's product managers say they'll be introducing a “virtual supermarket” program that lets policy makers identify "food deserts." A new app called Bing HealthMaps -- live today -- allows users to search using geolocated data and add overlays for the incidence of health conditions, like Diabetes or obesity. Bing will also integrate Oodle classifieds with health data, enabling searches to load rentals, school ratings and layer on different conditions.

Network of Care for Healthy Communities

Network of Care for Healthy Communities is a web-based portal that targets individuals and policy makers. The portal includes multiple components, including:

* A service directory of every service that deals with health for a region, with more than 2,000 entries

* A library with more than 50,000 volumes. Both the directory or library can be dropped with a click into a personal health record.

* A selection of links, including nearly 20,000 health-related links from around the country.

* A legislative section that includes every bill dealing with health in state legislature and in Congress

The web portal could be adopted by other counties. For example, the template that's applied to Sonoma County can be replicated fairly easily. The portal is built upon a number of open source and proprietary applications. As it's also a service, there would be a cost associated with customization.

General Electric commits to health apps

GE launched in May of 2009, focusing on showing data to drive change. Infographics and visualizations, like those that show the cost of getting sick, have received hundreds of thousands of views with no promotion. An interactive health visualizer has been particularly popular. GE will be adding new apps that present more health data in aggregate, including community health rankings. An interactive map, for instance, provides visualization for regional public health data all across the United States.

Social gaming for better health?

A health game called Community Clash will marry public health data to game mechanics. Users can get their own "well-being score" and then share their results with friends.

The game mashes up four data sources: CHDI, Twitter, Gallup polls and well-being assessments. In the future, the game's creators hope to build leader boards, encourage social comparison, and add geo-location and sentiment analysis.

Open data as a means to healthier communities

By releasing data and empowering the technology to build applications, HHS CTO Todd Park hopes to catalyze healthcare policy, delivery and services. The same evidence-based medicine that bids to make healthcare better could be applied on an even grander scale, and yet only for the cost of releasing good data. That's a bargain Park seems willing to make. "In less than 90 days, we've had a growing number of innovators team up to take ideas that originated on March 11 and then expand upon them to turn into beta applications," he said.

Park formally announced the launch of an interim CHDI website, which is already accessible through under the "Connect with data" button. He also said that there will be a new HHS Health Indicators Warehouse, launching in December 2010, that will have Medicare community-level indicators.

The Community Health Data Forum will kick off the Health 2.0 Developer Challenge (, which will extend through this fall. Over the next four months, the Challenge will host a series of code-a-thons and team competitions to build apps based upon CHDI data.

"We're going to ask developers to submit the coolest apps they could use to improve the mission," said Park. Regional events will culminate in a final challenge during the fourth annual Health 2.0 Conference in San Francisco.